Nature’s Mud Room

The view from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge boardwalk

Every drought is different. One leaves the earth cracked and barren; another, less obvious to the eye, stunts growth and ruins crops.

This year, mud prevailed. As their water receded, ponds began to resemble the spring mud of my childhood and youth: sticky, clumpy goo that filled the mud rooms of our homes and clogged country roads. Avoiding it was impossible; tractors and children alike sank down into it as surely as this Brazoria refuge alligator was sinking into his diminished pond.

On the other hand, there’s more to this pond mud than unattractive slop. A closer look reveals signs of life: a few emerging leaves, and a dragonfly making do amid the goo.

Eventually, rains developed, and signs of life increased. If the ponds weren’t filled, they at least tempted some of the larger alligators to come out and have a bask at the water’s edge.

Wading birds small and large began probing the edges of the ponds and sloughs for tidbits. While Dunlins nest in Arctic regions, they’re a common visitor to our coast. The Cornell site provides some etymology and a humorous interpretation of the bird’s name:

Dunlin comes from dunling, the earliest known English name of the species… a compound of the English word dun (meaning gray-brown) and the diminutive -ling. So the name Dunlin essentially means ‘little brown job.’
Dunlin ~ Calidris alpinaWhite Ibis ~ Eudocimus albus

Where water flows, reflections shimmer. In the case of these waterside cattails, ripples accentuated the plants’ frowziness: their delicate fluff transformed into sodden lumps by days of rain.

Of course, when nature adds water, not every plant that rises from the mud is welcome. Floating Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), an aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin and often seen at Brazos Bend State Park, is one of our most troublesome and fastest growing invasives. Able to double its population in just two weeks, it creates thick layers of vegetation which prevent light from reaching other aquatic plants and reduces dissolved oxygen in the water.

Currently, the only means of control are herbicides, shredding, and physical removal. The problems the plant presents are significant enough that it’s illegal in Texas to possess or transport it.

Water hyacinth

Along the edges of Brazos Bend’s Elm Lake, an equally pretty but perfectly acceptable native plant surrounded the remnants of a faded, mud-loving native lotus. Although smartweed flowers are only a quarter-inch across, their details reward a closer look.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) and Swamp Smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides)

People often comment that the world looks greener after a rain, but other colors intensify, as well. On Galveston Island, a field of Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) turned distinctly pink.

Not far away, what might (or might not) have been the last milkweed of the season attracted a bevy of camera-shy insects.

Whorled milkweed ~ Asclepias verticillata

And everywhere — at the water’s edge or some distance away — the rain encouraged a variety of asters into bloom. With a full dozen species listed for this area, identification can be challenging, but they’re all lovely.

Heath aster ~ Symphyotrichum ericoides
Salt marsh aster ~ Symphyotrichum divaricatum

All asters attract a variety of bees, flies, and butterflies, but Tarnished Plant Bugs (Lygus lineolaris) feed on the plants themselves.  Lime green as nymphs, they take on a bronzed appearance as they age: hence, the common name.

A widespread true bug, they adore munching on anything green, including garden produce. With the arrival of the rains and new growth, they surely were as happy as the alligators and birds freed from a world of mud.

Tarnished Plant Bug nymph ~ Lygus lineolaris


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